Vilma Santos film a big hit at TIFF

Community News & Features Sep 13, 2013 at 6:13 pm
Director Jeffrey Jeturian   PHOTO: JOSEPH SMOOKE

Director Jeffrey Jeturian

Philippine Reporter interviews EKSTRA director, actress, fans at TIFF

By Dyan Ruiz

TORONTO–Filipino-Canadians packed the house for the sold-out premiere of the new indie film that shows the Star for all Seasons, Vilma Santos, in a role she’s never had to play before–an extra.

(Bit Player) stars the venerable Santos, also known as the Grand Slam Queen because of her long reign over the Philippine box office. But instead of playing up her superstar status, Santos delivers a touching and funny portrayal of the grueling routine of a “face in the crowd” for this film about the making of a TV soap opera. Ekstra was part of the Contemporary World Cinema category of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and had its international premiere in Toronto after an award-winning run at the Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival in Manila this summer.

The film was a way for Santos to acknowledge the hard work of the extras, said its director, Jeffrey Jeturian, who was on-hand for the premiere on the evening of Sunday (Sept. 8) at the Scotiabank Theatre. “In her 50 years in the industry, she never experienced how it is to be an extra because even in her first movie, she was already the lead star as a child actress,” he said in an interview with The Philippine Reporter.

Vilma Santos  (left) in  Ekstra  (The Bit Player)

Vilma Santos (left) in Ekstra (The Bit Player)

But she was aware of how the extras, often derisively called “talents,” are treated. Jeturian said “her heart goes out to them so when she read the script, she said it’s very real, it’s very true. That’s why she agreed to do the film.”

For Jeturian, directing Santos was a dream he held on to for 30 plus years. “For me it’s a dream come true because not every director gets to direct Vilma Santos. And secondly, even as a teenager, I’ve been a fan of Vilma Santos,” he said. “In my first foray in production work as a production assistant, that was in 1983, that was a Vilma Santos film. Doing that back then, I told myself that some day I hope to direct her.”

In an unlikely turn of events, Jeturian got his chance through this indie film about bit players. “A mainstream production house wouldn’t touch that kind of a film,” he said, “It’s not very commercial, it doesn’t have a love angle… The only thing mainstream about the movie is that it stars Vilma Santos. But that also is something extraordinary because it happens to be her first indie film.”

Jeturian drew on his own experience as a director of teleseryes (Philippine soap operas) to co-write the screenplay. In fact, he filmed Ekstra in just 13 days to accommodate his other directing duties and Santos’s obligations as governor of Batangas province.

Cinemalaya’s Best Supporting Actress Ruby Ruiz                     PHOTO:   JOSEPH SMOOKE

Cinemalaya’s Best Supporting Actress

For the movie to be credible depicting a popular TV soap, icons in the genre also appear in a light-hearted parody of themselves. These include stars such as Cherie Gil, Eula Valdez, Marian Rivera, Piolo Pascual, Cherry Pie Picache and Richard Yap. “For the idea of Vilma Santos being a bit player to work, she has to be surrounded by big stars and her co-bit players are no name actors,” Jeturian said.

One of those actors made a name for herself through her comical portrayal of the tough manager of the extras, Ruby Ruiz, who won the Best Supporting Actress Award at Cinemalaya, alongside Santos as Best Actress. The film was also an audience favorite at Cinemalaya and won for Best Screenplay.

A veteran actress in her own right, Ruiz (who is this writer’s aunt), started first on stage some 20 years ago then continued with roles on TV and film.

Ruiz said Santos is a “great person in reel and real life,” in an email interview. “Very often in the scenes that we were together, I would forget she’s Vilma Santos, until she looks at me straight in the eye” and she got stars-truck she said, “with the look of enigma from a seasoned star like Ate Vi.”

Ruiz now has a role in the Philippine teleserye Annaliza and plays a devoted nanny in the upcoming film directed by Joey Javier Reyes, Ano ang Kulay ng mga Nakalimutang Pangarap.

TIIF-Ekstra-posterAt the sold-out premiere in Toronto, many in the long lineup awaiting the film’s start were excited to watch it given the critical acclaim at Cinemalaya.

Arnold Manalac, a big Santos fan, organized about 20 of his friends to come watch the film. “These are all my college friends, friends here in Toronto, some of my relatives,” he said while pointing out the smiling faces with him, “so we organized and came up with a small group to support this film.”

The crowd of mostly Filipino-Canadians was abuzz with anticipation, including the very first people in the line, Danny Ong and Ricardo Obusan, who came to support independent Filipino films.

Jeturian signed autographs before and after the film’s screening and took questions from the audience.

The final showing of Ekstra at TIFF is Sept. 15, but the movie will have a theatrical release in eight Canadian cities including Mississauga and Scarborough from Sept. 13 to 26.